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Rise of the Great Persian Empire – How it Become a Dominant Power in the Known World

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The Persians

Sometime in the 9th century, another Aryan tribe, the Persians, settled in Anshan to the south of Susa. In the early 7th century, one of their chiefs, Achaemenes (Hakhamanish) founded a dynasty, the Achaemenids, and won independence from the Neo-Elamite kings. His son, Teispes (Chishpish), took the title “King of Anshan” and allied himself with the Elamites in their war against Sennacherib. When Ashurbanipal sacked Susa in 646, Cyrus I (Kurush) became an Assyrian vassal. After the rise of Cyaxares, Persia became a Median dependency. Around 560, the Median King Astyages arranged for his daughter to marry the Persian King Cambyses I. Their son Cyrus II served as a commander in the Median army.


On the death of his father, Cyrus II became the king of the Persians. In 553, Cyrus led a revolt against his grandfather Astyages. Although he suffered some early defeats, the Median army eventually went over to Cyrus, and he took Ecbatana in 549. Cyrus now ruled the entire Median Empire. In 546 Cyrus conquered Lydia, adding much of Asia Minor to his realm. Cyrus then defeated King Nabonidus, entered Babylon in 539, and took over all the Babylonian Empire: Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Syria-Palestine.


Cyrus was succeeded by Cambyses (Kambujiya) who, to ensure the throne, had his brother Smerdis (Bardiya) killed. Cambyses defeated Psammetichus III and by the summer of 525 had taken control of all of Egypt, but he was unsuccessful in an attempt to conquer the Kushite kingdom of Meroë (See 591 B.C.E.–350 C.E). In 522, a pretender named Gaumata seized the throne, claiming to be the dead Smerdis. Cambyses died on his way to deal with the revolt.


A member of another branch of the Achaemenid family, Darius I (Darayavaush) defeated Gaumata’s revolt as well as other revolts in Babylonia and the eastern provinces. Darius’s commemoration of his achievements, the Behistun inscription, written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian, became the key to the modern decipherment of cuneiform. Darius later added the Indus Valley and Libya to his empire, now the largest the world had ever known. He reorganized the administration and divided the empire into 20 satrapies, as well as introducing a standard gold coinage, the daric. At its height, the Persian Empire probably contained around 15 to 16 million inhabitants, with some 4 million in Persia proper. There were royal residences at Susa, Persepolis, Ecbatana, and Babylon, and good roads, with stations for royal messengers, which made possible regular communications within the vast realm. After 513, Darius started expanding into Europe and led an expedition which crossed the Danube. In 499, the Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor revolted but were suppressed after a six-year war. The Athenians had aided the rebels, and to punish them Darius sent the expedition which was defeated at the Battle of Marathon


The next king, Xerxes I (Khshayarsa, 486–465), undertook a major invasion of Greece but was defeated at sea in the Battle of Salamis (480) and on land at Plataea and Mycale (479). After Xerxes’ murder in a palace coup, Artaxerxes I Longimanus (Rtaxshaca, 465–424) took the throne. Athens took the offensive against Persia by sending troops to aid a revolt in Egypt (456–454) and by attacking Cyprus (450), but finally readied a peace agreement with Persia in 448 (See 448). The empire suffered a series of coups d’état: Xerxes II (424–404) was assassinated by his brother Sogdianus (424), who in turn fell at the hands of Darius II Nothus (424–404). Artaxerxes II Mnemon (404–358) faced the rebellion of his brother Cyrus, who raised an army in Anatolia which included ten thousand Greek mercenaries. The rebel army won the Battle of Cunaxa (401) near Babylon, but Cyrus was killed. The Greeks marched back to the Black Sea under the leadership of Xenophon, who wrote the Anabasis (“March Upcountry”) about the experience. Another insurrection broke out in Asia Minor under Datames, the satrap of Cappadocia, and spread to the western satrapies (366–360). Egypt won its independence in 404. Artaxerxes III Ochus (358–338) succeeded through energetic measures in reconstituting the empire but faced the growing power of Philip of Macedon, who had unified the Greeks under his rule (See 338). Both Artaxerxes III and his weak son, Arses (338–336), were assassinated, and it was Darius III Codomannus (336–330) who met the invasion of Philip’s son, Alexander the Great. Alexander defeated the Persians at the battles of Granicus (334), Issus (333), and Gaugamela, near Arbela (331). The next year, Darius, fleeing from the Macedonians, was killed by some of his nobles

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